Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Things I Love: Really Smart Characters

So, I have no comments yet about the 2nd Wings of Fire arc, except that so far I do like it as much as the first arc, but I’m stuck for a couple of days waiting for the third and fourth books to arrive. At least it’s giving me a chance to go back to the first five-book arc and re-read those. I’ve forgotten plenty of details, so that’s fine.

But I did jump ahead to see who the pov protagonists are for the remaining books because I really, really wanted one of those protagonists to be Qibli. Yay! He is the pov character for the last book of this arc.

Now, why I like Qibli — from the title of this post, you know why. Because he’s really smart and perceptive and Tui Sutherland does a fantastic job making this clear in the first book of the arc, Wings of Fire 6, Moon Rising.

Really brilliant characters, I love them, and they’re fairly hard to write, so probably for that reason among others, we don’t see that many of them in fiction. I don’t mean geniuses like Archimedes in Bradshaw’s Sand Reckoner; I mean smart in a more general or tactical sense. I was trying to think of a top ten list and how the authors pulled off the trick of writing them. Not sure I can get to ten, but this has been a really good year for very intelligent characters, so let’s see:

1) Qibli from the Wings of Fire series — I’ll start with him because he made me think of this list. Sutherland does it by having him think of more things more quickly than any other character, and by having his thoughts chain together into rapid and coherent conclusions and perceptions. Very nice job! I loved him from Moon’s perspective and I expect I’ll love him when he gets center stage in his own book.

2) Jarrit from the Magic’s Poison series. Gillian Bradshaw does it by having him always be ten steps ahead of everyone else, even when he is in terrible physical shape and half-conscious; by giving him cutthroat political instincts; and by having his most important weakness be an inability to predict what really stupid antagonists might do.

3) Ben Ryder from the Extraction trilogy. Haywood does this by having him murmur a series of stream-of-consciousness thoughts at important moments as he figures something out, and by the way other characters react to him and he reacts to them. He just cannot believe Emily hasn’t figured out various important things; he is the only one Mimi more or less treats as an equal, and so on.

4) Bren Cameron from the Foreigner series. (Hey, where’s the next Foreigner book?) A great contrast to Jarrit, because it’s hard to imagine Bren ever doing anything to anyone that’s as vicious as the kinds of things Jarrit, when properly motivated, can do. Bren is so much quieter and less ostentatious, but his political instincts are also top-notch, obviously.

Anybody know anything about Foreigner 20? Because usually CJ Cherryh has brought a new one out about this time every year and this year, no sign of one.

5) Janos in The Thousand Names series. He’s terrifying because we never see inside his head, and it’s really hard to tell whether he’s actually a good guy, and of course things get really complicated with him at the end. By refusing to let the reader see inside Janos’ head, Wexler emphasizes his brilliance. The reader never has a clue what rabbit Janos will pull out of a hat till it’s right out in view.

6) Lymond from Dunnett’s series. Again with the killer political instincts. Also with never seeing anything from Lymond’s point of view. Very intense series. The first book can be read as a standalone; the second book is not the strong point, so if you go on with this series, don’t stall out on that one and quit. I don’t feel Dunnett really knew where the series was going until after that.

7) Miles, obviously, from the Vorkosigan series.

8) Vlad Taltos, from the Taltos series

In both of the above series, the authors pull off tactical brilliance and we have no idea how hard they had to wham their heads against a wall as they figured out how to get their characters out of the corners they painted them into. I would never be able to do that, or at least I hope I could, but wow, I wish it were easier to come up with brilliant tactical solutions to intractable problems after your protagonist is stuck.

And … that is not ten.

Who has someone to add to this list? Recommendations are very welcome, especially if the brilliant protagonist is also an admirable person.

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21 Comments Things I Love: Really Smart Characters

  1. Robert

    One that comes to mind is Lord Havelock Vetinari, Patrician of Ankh-Morpork from Pratchett’s Discworld. He is brilliant and manipulative. Pretty much always one step ahead. Admirable? Well… yes? I think Ankh-Morpork would be in worse shape without him.

  2. kootch

    Rowan from “The Steerswoman” series. She is the quintessence of the scientific method of gathering knowledge. And don’t forget Murderbot – gotta be really smart to be able to hack your governor.

  3. Mary Catelli

    We will obviously never see it now — but I heard a rumor that Pratchett was setting up Moist von Lipwig as Vetineri’s handpicked successor. . .

  4. Bret Grandrath

    Foreigner 20 will be titled Resurgence, on her website Cherryh says she is “making a final editing pass”
    Alliance Rising was released in January, I think that bumped Resurgence to later this year.

  5. Rachel Neumeier

    Oh, definitely Vetinari. Perfect choice.

    I love Rowan, but not sure she has the level of political genius I’m thinking of.

    Not Tehre — she’s like Bradshaw’s Archimedes, a different kind of genius. Possibly Beguchrin, though.

    Now I am dramatically mire likely to take a look at Kowel’s book.

    Bret, thanks for the update about Resurgence. I have Alliance Rising here on my coffee table, but I would much rather have the next Foreigner novel. But if it comes out this year, that’s fine.

  6. Elaine T

    I just picked up (and put down unfinished, but anyway) an old one, Once a Hero by Stackpole, which has one narrator who is quite smart – who at sixteen notices the pattern of the enemy movements and figures out what they’re after. who thinks fast enough to manipulate the unaligned person of some power to supporting him when he’s about to die unless…

    too bad the writing is so stiff. I was looking for the ‘I beat him with beavers’ bit I remembered from the one read long ago. and it was slog finding it, even skimming.

  7. Sandstone

    This discussion has made me realize that all of the characters that come to mind for this trope are men, hrm. I think Ilisidi in the Foreigner books is the closest to an exception I can think of?

  8. Allan Shampine

    Hmm. I think there is fortunately a trend over recent decades towards more hypercompetent/brilliant female protagonists. Off the top of my head, Artemis has a competence porn female protagonist. Seven Eves has the titular seven female characters, all highly competent. The protagonist of the Ile-Rien trilogy is female. A variety of Ilona Andrews protagonists. Irene Adler, as written by many authors. Anyway, I think hyper-competent / brilliant women are becoming more common, and thank heavens for that!

  9. Rachel

    But Sandstone is right: even Tremaine doesn’t leap to mind for this list. She’s very competent, but not in the same way. Her father Nicholas might be, which doesn’t help with the male/female imbalance here.

    Winter in The Thousand Names series is overshadowed in this particular regard by Janos, but if you waited 20 years, she might be on this list. She’s got the tactical chops, but she’s more like Miles Vorkosigan — fast to improvise and quick to grasp tactical choices, rather than a political genius like some of the others.

    You know, Janos overshadows EVERYONE in that series, but actually, the woman who becomes queen, Raesinia, DOES have very, very sharp political instincts. If Janos weren’t in that series, I bet Raesinia would have stood out more for that quality.

    Sandstone, have you read that series?

  10. Elaine T

    hmm… women who are tacticly and politically astute.. You know, GGKay has some of them. Most of the females in Arbonne, who are holding the place together for instance; Rain in Under Heaven. And, of course, the two noble woman who are focused on in Bradshaw’s The Bearkeeper’s Daughter , one of whom Kay used as well, in Sarantium.

    As for why they don’t leap to mind… shrug… I haven’t thought of any of those books particularly recently, that’s my excuse. And they aren’t necessarily political powers – Rain certainly wasn’t. But she could read the situations and plan and react very very intelligently.

    Oh, one more from CJC: Signy Mallory.

  11. Rachel Neumeier

    It has been ages since I re-read anything by Kay. I don’t remember Rain at all, nor any characters from Arbonne. I guess I should re-read those.

    Theodora was amazing, but such a tangential character in Bearkeeper’s Daughter.

    But! Arienne Emory is a perfect fit. Perfect. I can’t believe I didn’t think of her.

  12. Mary Anne Anderson

    Rennyn Clare in Andrea Host’s Eferum series is pretty darn brilliant, if you’re looking for a really smart woman. As is Martha Well’s Maskelle. Sometimes it comes down to how you’re defining “really smart.” Because idea smart, and people smart and life smart should all count. As should extreme competence. IMO. Cordelia Naismith is about as brilliant as I’d like to meet…
    Also Eugenides, and how disappointing is it that the publication of the last book in The Thief series has been postponed for another year!

  13. Rachel

    All kinds of intelligence counts in one list or another! But for this one, I was specifically thinking of tactical and political brilliance. So definitely Gen, and for that matter quite possibly Irene. But not Maskelle — though Maskelle is a great protagonist, for sure!

    I have been putting off starting the Eferum series till the next book is out. Definitely looking forward to it.

  14. Jeanine

    If you look at mystery genre, Donna Andrews has a character, Meg Langslow, who is smart and politically savvy at navigating her way around difficult people and byzantine small town politics. Definitely competence porn. And amusing to boot.

  15. Rachel

    I do like mysteries, so sure, happy to pick up a Donna Andrews mystery and give it a try. Thanks for the tip!

  16. Elaine T

    Meg Langslow? competent at some things maybe – blacksmithing – but needs a spine. And what’s happening to her business, while she’s off for several months being unpaid wedding consultant?

    Never went on, although the Teen has read several.

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